Wednesday, June 28, 2017

NYAFF ’17: Japanese Girls Never Die

Kilroy will be personified again, but instead of another ill-conceived Catch-22 sequel, it is two deadbeat Japanese taggers who have assumed the famous graffiti moniker. They are about to go viral for their use of a missing woman’s “wanted” poster. Is this the final appropriation of her dignity or are they keeping hope and her memory alive? To answer that question, we will flash forward and backwards through episodes of Haruko Azumi’s life in Daigo Matsui’s Japanese Girls Never Die (a.k.a. Haruko Azumi is Missing, trailer here), which screens during this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Azumi life is rather thankless. She works as an “Office Lady” for two Mutt and Jeff sexists and lives at home with her parents, who basically consider her their errand girl. When she runs across a former classmate living in her neighborhood, she quickly develops a romantic attachment, but Shoga the slacker is not worth her unrequited ardor. Inevitably, he two-times her with yet another former classmate. Indeed, class ties are a form of social destiny in Never Die.

In short, Azumi is rather entitled to feel resentful. However, it seems she is not the only one who feels this way. During the months leading up to her disappearance and the two years after, a gang of uniformed high school girls, led by the mysterious JK, has been stalking and beating unenlightened male pigs. In fact, we will see some of the everyday villains of the film get their painful comeuppance at their hands (and feet). Sadly, Yukio and Manabu, the taggers behind the exploitation of Azumi’s image probably are not on the side of the angels either, especially when it comes to their treatment of their third accomplice, Aina Kinami, whose desperate need for affection makes her easy to take advantage of.

There is a powerful film buried inside Never Die, but the constant skittering forward and back along the narrative time frame actually undercuts its potency. Arguably, it would be more effective to see the tragedies unfold and connections get made in a deliberate step-by-step fashion. It is also hard not to wonder what the film would have been like in the hands of a stylist like Tetsuya Nakashima. Thematically, it is dead-solidly in his wheel house, alongside Memories of Matsuko and Kamikaze Girls. Matsui, who previously helmed Wonderful World End, clearly has an affinity for youthful angst, but he does not have the bravura visual sensibility the material cries out for.

Nevertheless, Yu Aoi is so breathtakingly perfect as Azumi, not even the most heavy-handed director could undermine her portrayal. It is a heartbreaking turn, in large part because she never asks for or expects the least bit of sympathy. The irony of the former teen sensation so convincingly playing Azumi, the desperate thirtysomething, layers on further resonance. She defines and dominates the film, but Mitsuki Takahata is also quite poignant as the too cute Kinami.

Despite its ADD, Never Die really lowers the emotional boom down the stretch. To his credit, Matsui’s anger and empathy are palpable, which makes the film’s periodic grace notes so redemptive. Admittedly ragged along the edges, Japanese Girls Never Die is still recommended on balance for its passion and Yu Aoi’s remarkable performance when it screens this Sunday (7/2), at the Walter Reade, as part of the 2017 NYAFF.